Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative closed amid allegations of scientific misrepresentation and environmental harm

Zuber hopes new Media Lab director will be found within a year

The Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg), a project at the Media Lab that began January 2015, closed in April. 

The New York Times reported May 13 that OpenAg closed “amid allegations that its results were exaggerated to sponsors and the public.” OpenAg’s principal research scientist, Caleb Harper MA ’14, stopped working for MIT April 30.

According to the Media Lab website, OpenAg developed “food computers,” high-tech miniature greenhouses that were intended to allow for precision control of various climatic conditions, let farmers across the globe share data, and find optimal conditions for growing crops.

Harper had hoped that these machines would catalyze a “fourth agricultural revolution,” The New York Times wrote. OpenAg and Harper’s exaggeration and misrepresentation of their work came under public scrutiny in September 2019.

The New York Times reported in September that OpenAg researchers were told to buy plants to put inside food computers before photoshoots to make the machines appear functional and that Harper intentionally oversold the ability of food computers to produce a controlled environment.

Harper’s 2015 TED Talk publicizing OpenAg had nearly two million views before being taken down late 2019 for not meeting science standards.

Harper also claimed that machines developed by OpenAg were successfully deployed to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, IEEE Spectrum reported in October.

IEEE Spectrum's investigation revealed that the machines never reached a refugee camp and were housed in a Jordanian Agricultural Research Center, where the machines did not perform as intended.

WBUR reported in September that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) was investigating OpenAg for dumping wastewater underground, endangering waterways in Middleton. “Nitrogen levels from the lab’s wastewater registered more than 20 times above the legal limit,” WBUR wrote.

According to MIT’s Bates Research and Engineering Center website, MassDEP “fined MIT $25,125 for discharging spent plant growing solution and dilute cleaning fluids into” an underground injection control well “in violation of the conditions of the well registration terms, and impairing potential use of ground water as a source of potable water.”

Due to the closure of OpenAg, MIT will pay $15,000. The Institute agreed to close the well at Bates, according to the Bates Center website.

The New Yorker reported in September that convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was “credited with securing at least $7.5 million in donations” for the Media Lab. 

According to the Goodwin Procter fact-finding report released in January, Epstein’s last known visit to the MIT Media Lab in April 2017 included a meeting with Harper, in which a potential $1.5 million donation was discussed.

Media Lab Director Joi Ito resigned in September after it was revealed that he attempted to conceal his ties to Epstein.

An executive committee was appointed to lead the Media Lab until a new director is found. The five-member committee includes Professor Pattie Maes, Professor Deb Roy PhD ’99, Professor Tod Machover, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, and Vice President for Human Resources Ramona Allen.

In a response to an open letter in The Tech expressing concerns over OpenAg, Zuber wrote in October that the issues raised “are important ones that MIT takes very seriously” and that “a thorough assessment is taking place.”

Zuber also wrote that “research integrity at MIT is paramount,” but Institute policy “does not permit commenting on any individual allegations” such as those involving OpenAg.

The New York Times reported in October that Zuber “halted OpenAg activities, pending completion of ongoing assessments.” The Initiative was already mostly closed prior to its complete termination in April.

Zuber said in an interview with The Tech that MIT does not “need a fine to want to act responsibly” and that MIT took an “absolutely intentional step” to address environmental issues at Bates because “it is the right thing to do.”

Zuber said that she is “proud” of her colleagues in the Media Lab and that “the entire lab has gotten together and taken time” for “self reflection.” 

Zuber said that groups have been developed to “look at culture, funding sources, and advisor-student relationships,” among other aspects of the Media Lab. She said that the “100% faculty agreement on initiatives” within the Media Lab is a “real affirmation of the efforts of everyone at the lab.”

Zuber said that the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the progress of finding a new director, but she hopes one will be found within a year. Zuber said the search will be “global and thorough.” 

Zuber said the Media Lab has promoted mentorship of junior faculty, created search hiring committees that bring expertise from across the Institute, increased emphasis on community events, implemented new guidelines for initiatives, and expanded faculty ownership of research programs.

Zuber said she is “thrilled that the community has come together and looks to the future as it does” and hopes the Media Lab retains its “quirky, creative, and brilliant” parts.

Update 5/29/2020: The article headline was updated to reflect OpenAg’s closure amid, not because of, allegations. Kimberly Allen, MIT's director of media relations, wrote in an email to The Tech that MIT's official statement on OpenAg's closure states, “Caleb Harper’s last day of employment with the Institute was April 30, and as he led the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, it is closed at MIT."